“Saving Tyler Hake,” by Meredith Sue Willis

Meredith Sue Willis

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Although the title might lead a potential reader to think this novella is mostly about one young man, it is not. Saving Tyler Hake, by Meredith Sue Willis, paints a vivid portrait of small town life: the complicated relationships of people who have known each other since childhood and newcomers trying to understand the culture and fit in. It’s a story about reputations, about “good girls” and a slut—and revelations showing those labels are far too simplistic. Most of all, it’s a story of teachers who walk the extra mile—a hundred extra miles—to save one boy.

Tyler Hake’s father Mason commits suicide, leaving the family traumatized and with no means of support. The opening pages reveal that Tyler has a happy ending, or what amounts to one in Smith County, West Virginia, so the suspense lies not in the boy’s outcome, but how that positive ending comes about. Tyler is a sophomore in Robin Sue Smith’s English class. The week after the suicide, Tyler returns to school, earning him some respect from his teachers: “In Smith County we believe it means something, to show up.”

The teacher’s lounge speculates on the cause of Mason’s suicide. Robin Sue worries a mean stunt she pulled as an eight years old might have contributed to Mason’s final act: “Not that what you did when you were eight years old makes you responsible for a grown man’s suicide, but I do believe you never really know what effect even the smallest thing has on people.” Her deliberate act of cruelty toward a boy who had a crush on her was “The “worst thing [she had] ever done in [her] life.” Other people, without evidence, blame Geneva Burden who “could always say some little thing that just drew blood like a razor.”

One of the most interesting conversations in the novella takes place between Robin Sue, who returned to Smith County after graduating from college, and Geneva Burden, who moved to the big city. Geneva declares that “cities are better. You have choices.” Angered, Robin Sue protests that she has always had choices, but then she notices “something in [Geneva’s] face was so full of . . . want.” Geneva is worried she “missed something along the way.” She is trying to figure out why she left and everyone else stayed. She notes that Robin Sue wasn’t “unimaginative and dumb and trapped,” so why did she come back to their hometown after college? Robin Sue explains in a small town you feel “like you’re part of the whole.” She’s found a sense of belonging in her family and teaching career.

Geneva admits she’s “not a good person,” that she has slept around a lot: “Maybe that’s it, you all could stay because you played by the rules. No, you believed in the rules.” But Geneva is not so easily consigned to a label. Yes, she dresses provocatively and makes too many moves on other people’s husbands. Sure, she carries on an affair with Tyler, who is only seventeen—young enough to be her son. But she is kind to the boy, too, and helps his family by supplying food and Christmas gifts after Mason dies. She pays to fix Tyler’s teeth.

Although Robin Sue is horrified to learn of Geneva’s inappropriate relationship with Tyler, she is honest enough to examine her own feelings:

I do believe we have all, at some time in our lives, felt inappropriate attractions. Most of us never even admit it to ourselves, and we certainly don’t act on it. I think maybe Tyler had reminded me of Mason a little at the beginning of last year. I figured part of our disgust with Geneva was about protecting ourselves from our own secret impulses.

That arrow shot from Meredith Sue Willis’s pen strikes deep into the human heart.

This novella not only captures unique Appalachian language like “treasure a grudge,” it also homes in on a key aspect of the culture, the imperative to “take care of each other.” Sure, the residents of Smith County poke around in everybody’s business, but how else would they know how to give their neighbors what they need? Saving Tyler Hake is the heart-warming story of an unforgettable community of loveable characters.

Born and raised in West Virginia, Meredith Sue Willis now lives in an inner ring suburb of New York City. She is the author of Their Houses, Oradell By the Sea, and the Blair Mountain Trilogy, among many others. She teaches at New York University’s School of Professional Studies and also does writer-in-the-school residencies and workshops for writers, as well as readings and visits to libraries, book groups, and universities.

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